By James Oliphant
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has triggered anguished soul searching among many college-educated and affluent Republicans who must decide whether to back him, sit out the election, or do the unthinkable: vote for his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
With less than two months to go before the Nov. 8 election, rural, white voters who lack a college degree have flocked to Trump. But his brash style and lack of experience in government are a much tougher sell among well-off Republicans who have long been a backbone of the party, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling and interviews with Republican-leaning white collar professionals.
Trump’s hopes of capturing the White House may rest on whether he can win over enough of these voters in battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia and Colorado to offset Clinton's overwhelming advantages with minority voters, young people, urban voters and women.
"If you had told me two years ago that I would be voting for Hillary Clinton, I would have said, ‘No freaking way,’” said Michael Sheehan, chief operating officer of a Columbus-based apparel firm.
Sheehan is now leaning toward Clinton, the Democratic nominee, because he worries Trump would damage U.S. relations abroad.
Reuters/Ipsos polling shows that Clinton is doing better among affluent and college-educated voters than President Barack Obama did four years ago, even among Republicans. It’s a warning signal for Trump, who has been shunned by blacks, Latinos and millennial voters.
In 2012, nearly nine out of every 10 Republicans with a college degree and annual income over $100,000 supported then Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Now, about seven in 10 support Trump.
Romney won college-educated voters over Obama by 4 percentage points in 2012, but the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll showed Clinton with a 48-28 percent advantage among those same voters last month.
The same gap is playing out in key swing states. In Ohio, Clinton has a 47-36 percent edge among the college educated, according to a Monmouth University poll in August.
“It’s amazing how few Trump supporters I’ve run into,” said James King, a partner in a prominent Columbus law firm who backed Romney in 2012 but who likely will vote for Clinton.
Marsha Blackburn, a congresswoman from Tennessee who is one of Trump’s biggest supporters in Washington, said Trump's proposal this week for a child-care tax credit was an example of policies that can appeal to more affluent Republicans.
Trump still needs to “keep pushing his economic message, keep talking about national security, keep talking about these issues that are so important to moms, these working-family issues,” she told Reuters.
Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, is crucial for Trump and he has campaigned intensively in the state. But in populous, largely suburban central Ohio, Trump has a tougher task than in the rural counties that surround it.
The local economy skews toward white-collar workers and professionals and does not depend on the manufacturing revival Trump has promised in his “Make America Great Again” message.
Romney, the scion of a wealthy family and former private equity fund manager, was a more natural fit with many Republicans in the area. He epitomized what sometimes has been called the “country club Republicans." They favor smaller government, less intrusive regulations and put less weight on conservative social values.
Trump, the real-estate magnate from Manhattan, would seem similar, but some Republican professionals in central Ohio can’t get past his temperament and comments like the one suggesting illegal immigrants from Mexico are rapists and murderers. Romney himself has been a fierce critic of Trump.
“There’s no way I could ever vote for that guy,” said King, the law firm partner, adding that Trump’s criticism of the family of a Muslim soldier, Humayun Khan, who was killed in action, soured him on Trump for good.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of registered voters last month showed Clinton ahead among white, college-educated voters in Colorado, where she held a 55-23 percent edge; in North Carolina, where she held a 47-40 percent advantage; and in Virginia, where she held a 43-37 percent edge.
Bradley Barbin, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in Columbus, has decorated the walls of his office with Republican memorabilia stretching back a century. He faults Trump for stirring resentment and for encouraging violence at his rallies.
Trump has denied there is significant violence at his events and has blamed the media for exaggerating scuffles with protesters.
Barbin said he likely won’t back Clinton. “Do I know exactly what I am going to do? No. But I do know that Trump’s the bigger problem,” he said.
Among affluent Republicans who do support Trump, several said that whatever reservations they may have about him as a candidate, it was more important to keep Clinton from the presidency.
“I think she’s a bad person,” said William Bay, a retired nephrologist who lives in Hilliard, a suburb of Columbus, who lauded Trump as an agent of change.
Trump’s campaign has long contended there exists a swath of Trump voters who won’t talk to the press or pollsters for fear of being demonized, but who will show up at the polls in November.
But it's also possible that some Republicans, once in the privacy of the voting booth, will go with Clinton because of their concerns about Trump. Barbin, the Columbus defense lawyer, said that’s the takeaway from conversations with his peers.
“We all know,” he said, “that there are certain people you just cannot give that kind of unfettered power to. You just can’t.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Kahn and Grant Smith; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin)